Frary: Fair Vote Follies


In 2016, Maine may become the first state to adopt ranked choice voting (RCV) for its state and national elections. Advocates for a referendum to approve this electoral procedure submitted the necessary signatures to Maine’s Secretary of State on October 19th.

Under RCV rules, voters are able to rank candidates in order of preference. When there’s no majority winner, those rankings can be used to elect a candidate by combining strong first choice support with broad second and third choice support from across the electorate. Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish without fear that ranking more candidates will hurt their favorite.

If no candidate has a majority on the initial “first choice” vote tally, the candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who chose the defeated candidate as a first choice will have their votes added to the totals of their next choice. Counting and recounting continues until the candidate with a majority of votes accumulated from successive levels of preference has a majority and is declared the winner.

The “Fair Vote Maine” website ( tells us the organization’s advocacy of Ranked Choice Voting aims to improve democracy. The site allows its supporters to make its case in a section entitled “[What] Mainers have said about ranked choice voting.” This is a collection of letters to the editors of various Maine newspapers.

A principal theme is the hope that RCV will produce a strong, truly democratic, mandate supporting the vigorous exercise of governmental power. For brevity’s sake I’ve carved out a list of phrases and sentences touting the democratic consequences of RCV.

HERE ARE THE COMMENTS: “ a system that ensures majority rule”.. .”a unique opportunity to build consensus”…. “the bottom line is that ranked choice voting ensures that our leaders are elected with a majority of support”…. “The best aspect of ranked choice voting is that the winner must have at least 50 percent of the vote to win an election. Hence, the majority rules”…..”our elected officials should have a mandate, a majority of support from Maine voters in order to pursue their policy agenda”…. “don’t want a leader who governs for only a third of the state. I want one that governs on behalf of the entire state”…. “it’s a more democratic way to elect our officials”….. “ensure that all our elected government officials have a mandate from Mainers to govern and set good public policy”….”We deserve to be both represented and governed by those who actually share the majority of Mainers values, not by those who pander to a small minority of it”…. “Ranked-choice voting encourages more people to register and to participate because they know that their vote will result in a majority decision no matter how many candidates are running. Greater participation facilitates a democracy based on a greater diversity of thinking. Winner has a broader base.”

The principle that “Majority Rules” is deeply rooted American history and custom. It resolves countless disputes and is especially useful where logic and facts are powerless to tip the scales one way of another. It’s not much use for defeating arguments, but it’s very effective for ending them. This may leave the losers disgruntled and unsatisfied but they traditionally accept that they lost. The Rule’s best feature is that its acceptance avoids violence. There’s no historical or logical support for a delusion that majority rule necessarily means intelligent rule.

Daniel J. Boorstin, a master of American intellectual and social history explains. “Rarely in history do great numbers of people find themselves in communities that they have not only personally chosen, but have actually helped bring into being. This happened in the transient communities of the West. In these groups majority rule was the law, not for explicit theoretical reasons but from simple convenience. Groups of men who had never met before had to assign power, to devise and approve rules, and to make vital decisions. They counted heads for lack of other ways of deciding….Majority rule was the most obvious, the simplest, and least violent way of exercising the rule of those living and present.”.

The point here is that majority rule has been a useful custom, accepted by all as a practical way of organizing groups of people. Dr. Peter R. Orszag shows us the danger of turning this handy rule into a comprehensive dogma. The man served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and of the Congressional Budget Office and he’s currently a Citibank pasha. He knows numbers, and he calculates that with participation in presidential elections falling below 60 percent, a candidate must rack up 85% of the actual votes to win a true majority. In short, no president has ever had, or will ever have, an actual majority of that incoherent mass of humanity known informally as “The American People.”

And there’s the difficulty if we believe that ”…our elected officials should have a mandate, a majority of support from…voters in order to pursue their policy agenda.” It turns out that a “majority” is never a real majority. The plurality required by Maine’s Constitution for electoral victory is not a majority and RCV is supposed to correct that problem.

Orszag proposes adoption of an Australian law requiring all citizens 18 and above to enroll, show up at a polling station, enroll as an attendant, mark a ballot and slip it in the slot. Fail to do all these things and you face a fine. The philosophical argument is that voting is a citizen’s duty. The pragmatic argument is that an electoral majority gives governments more stability, legitimacy and a genuine mandate to govern. It’s the absence of a mandate potent enough to legitimize really, really big things that bothers Orszag. Like many others he loves Big Government and wants it to grow bigger and more powerful.

He also wants it to get better and smarter. He believes his “Australian” solution will improve the electorate by stimulating a broader interest in politics, advancing civil education, and creating a better informed population. More, since campaign funds are not needed to goad voters to the polls, he believes the role of money in politics will decreases. And still more! High levels of participation will decrease the risk of political instability created by crises or charismatic but sectionally focused demagogues.

Once again, we ask ourselves that old familiar question: How come men with lofty IQs, SATs, GPAs, and GREs keep coming up with really dumb ideas? The only possible explanation is that they love theories more than people. Look closely at people (real people, not statistical compilations) and you can’t help but notice their experiences, and those experiences are often fatal to theories. There’s no solid reason to expect any of the outcomes Obama’s former OMB director expects. If there was, the evidence would be found in the ninety years of Australian electoral history since the compulsory voting law was passed in 1925.

The evidence from RCV experiences positively contradicts the theoretical claims about its virtues. San Francisco adopted ranked-choice in 2004. In its 2010 city supervisor elections nearly 55 percent of voters failed to use all three of their choices. In February 2011 a survey of 500 voters by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce found that 70 percent were confused about whether the system accurately tallied their votes.

Prof. Corey Cook of the University of San Francisco political science department analyzed the 2010 RCV mayoral race in Oakland, and reports that 21 percent of voters did not use all three of their choices, effectively limiting participation in the instant runoff. Professor Corey also found that 0.6 percent “overvoted,” i.e., picked two or more candidates in a single voting-choice field This invalidated their ballots.

It seems to follow that the “majority” achieved by RCV procedures might be more completely, and accurately, described as “a majority of confused and frustrated voters.”

About John Frary

Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate, retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of He can be reached at

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